There are many forms of meditation, from sitting comfortably and listening to a peaceful guided meditation, to the mind-changing practice attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha some 2500 years ago.
The Buddha identified two of the most important mental qualities that result from the practice of meditation, and the forms of meditation which produce these qualities are named for them:
They are serenity (called shamatha, or calm abiding, which steadies and concentrates the mind), and insight (called vipassana, or mindfulness, in which the meditator is conscious of and attentive to previously unconscious mental and physical conditioning).
Disclaimer: Merely sitting on a meditation cushion does not guarantee the arising of either state. As a matter of fact, merely sitting anywhere provides little more than temporary rest and relaxation. The secret is to practice just one small act while you’re sitting there: you watch the breath. Simple, right?
- Place cushion on a flat surface.
- Apply seat of pants to cushion.
- Breathe normally.
- Begin to notice your breathing, changing nothing.
- Follow the breaths, in and out.
- Whenever the mind wanders, go back to the breath.
- (I said simple, not easy.)
Initial Side Effects:
- Twitching, yawning, sudden itches appearing anywhere on the body
- Discomfort of varying degrees
- Sudden appetite, necessitating immediate departure for the refrigerator
- Intense desire to be elsewhere, anywhere but on the cushion
- Temptation to look at a clock every twenty seconds
- Sudden departures into dreams, fantasies, speculation, planning, etc. (This phenomenon is often referred to as “monkey mind”)
- Just about anything else that the mind can conjure up to remove attention from the breath
Some of these side effects will disappear with time and practice.
Tips and Hints:
- Remember, repeatedly drawing the attention back to the breath is the practice. So get your mind out of the gutter, or the clouds, or your own personal internal movie theatre, or wherever it’s taken off to this time, and return to following the breath. Over. And over. Again.
- Sooner or later, you will begin to more quickly notice when your mind jumps the tracks and streaks off into the distance, dragging you with it. (Which, by the way, it does regularly. After all, thinking is what minds DO!)
- There is no “good” meditation session or “bad” meditation session. There is only the breath, and the simple act of bringing the mind back to the breath, again and again, ad infinitum…. This is why it’s called a “practice.”
- Inevitably, what will happen is that you will become more “mindful.” That is, you will become aware of your mind as an entity that you can actually watch as it cavorts around inside your head.
Eventually, the moment will come when you are off the cushion and just living your daily life, and suddenly (right in the midst of, say, a blast of swearing because you dropped your peanut butter toast, peanut-butter-side-down of course, onto your brand-new, off-white living room rug) you actually NOTICE your emotions raging around. And once you notice them, they no longer control you.
See, the thing is, everything changes. Everything. Wait awhile, just being attentive to the feeling, moment by moment. It will begin to dissolve into something else. Always.
And one day, there will come the moment when the rubber really meets the road, when you are off-the-charts furious (or afraid, or jealous, or any one of these overpowering feelings and harmful thoughts that go on inside all of us at one time or another), and you discover that you can actually shift gears, bringing your awareness to that feeling instead of just reacting to it!
One moment (or hour, or day, or year) you find yourself consumed with an emotion, and the next you find yourself just being attentive to it until it inevitably shifts… changes… moves on.
This is the fruit of the practice, the truly mind-changing gift of meditation: it teaches you how to cut through the crap.
As one writer says, “Through the meditative development of serenity, one is able to suppress obscuring hindrances; and, with the suppression of the hindrances, it is through the meditative development of insight that one gains liberating wisdom.” [Click here for source.]
What that means, in plain English, is that if you follow the breath long enough to become aware and attentive to the mental and emotional states you will inevitably encounter, eventually your mind will change – from the inside out. Permanently.
P.S. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice Buddhist meditation techniques. Nowadays, they’re increasingly being used by psychologists and psychiatrists to help alleviate a variety of health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
P.P.S. In fact, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an internationally-known scientist, writer, and meditation teacher who is engaged in bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society, calls mindfulness meditation “a workout for your consciousness.” [To learn more about Dr. Kabat-Zinn and his books and CDs, click here.]